My relationship to my body has been, like most women – let alone dancers, quite a journey.
My body, when training as a young dancer, seemed to be a determining factor of what I should do with my career and dance interests rather than a celebration of what I can do and how that joy could inform my path.
At 5’2” and weight ranging as a teen at 115 pounds to an adult at 135 (and up), I was first made aware of the disadvantage of my height, then the roundness and over-development of muscles (I had some gymnastic training as a youngster), then gently pushed to generally lose weight, and ultimately try to fit the mold of whatever company for which I thought, or someone thought, I might be a candidate.
Now, as an adult, I still carry the “shame” of my body not living up to the ideal image but my attitude is changing. I still hear the hurtful words from instructors 15 or 20 years ago but I am starting to be able to see the criticisms don’t still apply. Even if they do, it is up to me to determine how much control they have in my life and practices. I finally feel ready to take care of myself and to make choices that are good for me and not just my career. What might have happened if I felt this way 15 years ago?
My role in dance has shifted, it’s true. I am not auditioning anymore. My role in life has changed as well, I am mom to two young kids. My relationship to my body is a current focus whereas in the past the image of my body had been a focus first, with somatics coming second. Over the last year I have lost the residual weight from carrying children and have tried new strategies for movement- running and most recently, Bikram yoga. By reinvesting in my own health – physically, mentally, socially – my consciousness of the plight of young people, particularly young dancers, is heightened.
Setting the Example
In training young dancers, I use the health and wellness of my body and spirit to speak to young women and young men about their bodies. I am honest about my challenges but also my strengths. I give examples of how I overcame challenges or how I continue to work on them. I use this as a way to get them thinking about their own bodies- limitations and strengths- and maybe as a way for them to identify with me as a person as well as a dancer.
I don’t specifically share the harsh criticisms I have endured. When I have heard instructors do this, I felt it became an odd opportunity to “brag” about their perseverance and claim to fame in “who” had doled out the abuse. I gained nothing from the experience except a further concern that I may not measure up or worse, the fact that I may not want to measure up if that is the reality and what might that say about my “passion” for dance.
Choosing Words Carefully
In class, I choose to verbalize the benefits and outcomes of commitment to movement throughout class and throughout the course instead of shaming some students for not doing the work. As dancers, most of us have felt the judgement of a lifted eyebrow or curl of the lips as an instructor’s eyes scan up and down. We have heard the scarring lines that last a lifetime- things like “you fed it, you lift it” or “you’ll never be able to lift a fly”.
My theory, though, is that some students just simply aren’t ready to do the work required – emotionally, socially, technically, physically.
We, as a class, try to focus on the positive and leave the responsibility of choosing “readiness” to each student, with guidance, of course. Soon, the students want to feel the reward, see the reward, and it is contagious. Class engagement improves, the progress of the entire class improves, the program improves- as does empowerment and ownership.
I am not harsh when I explain to a student that they don’t seem ready, I just state the obvious as neutrally as possible – no judgement, no snark. My job is to teach, not belittle.
It can be hard approach to maintain at times, especially when my patience is low and their attitudes are high or when I feel they are selling themselves short. Ultimately though, decision must be theirs. I will not follow them through life, they have to make the decision to do the work.
For example, in one middle school elective class consisting of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, only a handful were dedicated to all portions of class- conditioning, warm-up, progressions, phrases, as well as strategies for tracking personal growth in a written portfolio (next year this will include a digital portfolio).
Instead of harping on students for not committing fully, it soon became very obvious that some students were gaining strength and flexibility and others were not. Students were able to feel the difference in themselves and see it in others. They were rewarded with more advanced movement vocabulary that seemed more “interesting” to those that had been less committed- things such as more sustained balances, multiple turns, more risky inversions, and best of all, deeper understanding that led to deeper conversations.
Before long, those that had been less productive started asking why selected students were given harder material, to which I was able to reply, “their hard work has paid off and they are ready for more. I think you could be ready, too, if you reconsider this portion of class. What do you think?”
Not only have we encouraged dancers to commit to the full class experience, we are also promoting healthy bodies through engagement – something we can actually control.
Setting the Tone
Do the snarky comments and dirty looks elicit results? Sure, in the short term. But they can also scar for the long term.
Just knowing that “we all” share the baggage, isn’t comforting to me.
While it is part of the tradition of dance, I don’t think it has to be part of the future of it, particularly when it means ultimately driving dancers away from dance. They may not leave now or in the next few years, but it is likely that they will at some point and when they do, they may not even return to watch dance.
Let’s be clear also, that we are honest in what should be discussed versus what is discussed.
Don’t use body image as an excuse not to have more challenging conversations relating to skill, technique, or your perception of whether or not a dancer will find success.
Being mean and being honest don’t have to be the same thing.
Choose your approach, carefully, you may never know the lasting impact of your words on one’s spirit.
More Dance Advantage reading on health and wellness:
- Should dancers run?
- Summer Strength Training: Dance Less, Dance Better
- Teaching Happiness with Every Leap
How are healthy dancers developed in your class?
Heather Vaughan-Southard MFA, is a choreographer, dance educator, and performer based in Michigan. She currently directs the dance program at the Everett High School Visual and Performing Arts Magnet in Lansing. With the philosophy of teaching dance as a liberal art, Ms. Vaughan-Southard collaborates with numerous arts and education organizations throughout the state. She has danced professionally in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York and has performed works by Mia Michaels, Lar Lubovitch, Donald McKayle, Billy Siegenfeld, Alexandra Beller, Debra Levasseur-Lottman, and Bob Fosse. As a choreographer, her work has been credited by the Los Angeles Times for “creating heat.” She has recently choreographed for the dance programs at Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University, Lansing Community College and is the former dance professor at Albion College. She is a regular guest artist and blogger for Dance in the Annex, an innovative dance community in Grand Rapids. Heather received her MFA in Dance from the University of Michigan, BFA in Dance from Western Michigan University and K-12 certification in Dance from Wayne State University. Read Heather’s posts.